California Nuclear Waste

Qinyi Geng
March 12, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Diablo Canyon Power. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Every year, over 20 metric tons of nuclear waste is generated by the Diablo Canyon Power (Fig. 1), which supports roughly 7% of California's electricity usage. [1] PG&E, having been operating the nuclear power plant since 1985, built an Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI) to host the nuclear waste. [2] For the past decades, local residents have been worrying about the potential explosion accidents, environmentally damaging pollution, and harmful radiation that ISFSI might produce. [3] The Fukushima incident further added to the community's concern about potential explosion due to earthquakes. In 2007, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Committee conducted research that concluded that the ISFSI had no potential harmful impact on the local community. [4] In 2013, PG&E also published an economic impact study of the power plant and argued that the plant provided environmental preservation, better air quality, and higher housing values to the community. [1] However, neither party was able to successfully comfort the local community.

In 2016, U.S. nuclear generation declined modestly. [5] PG&E also submitted the proposal to shut down the Diablo Canyon Power on August 11, 2016. The company plans to pay roughly $50 million to San Luis Obispo County to make up future property taxes lost due to the closing. [6] However, no specific plan has yet to be released about how the spent fuel currently stored at the ISFSI will be dealt with. The future of California nuclear waste is uncertain.

Potential Solution

A potential short-term solution is to keep the status quo and continue storing the waste at the ISFSI in dry casks. The advantages are obvious. It is much cheaper for PG&E to keep storing the waste in the dry casks and to bear the risk and cost of transporting it somewhere else. If any new nuclear waste processing technology is invented in the near future, the company can also easily take the waste out and process it. On the other hand, however, the company will likely continue to face objections from the local community. Dry casks are vulnerable to grenades and thus nuclear terrorism. The site's location near earthquake faults further worries the local public about potential explosion.

In the long run, PG&E may be able to develop a state underground disposal repository program with the government. On one hand, the company is free to find a site that has more suitable climate, geological features, and moisture level for storing nuclear waste. The underground storage will be more efficient in preventing proliferation and isolating the radiation. On the other hand, although a Blue Ribbon Commission has concluded that there are no fundamental technical barriers for transporting nuclear waste, the process may be especially costly and subject to explosion and terrorism threats. [7] Building a new storage site is also extremely difficult and expensive. Most of the public has a "Not in My Backyard" mindset when it comes to nuclear waste, and thus even finding a place to the site is highly difficult.


It is yet too early to say how exactly the nuclear wastes should be dealt with given that the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility will not close until 2025. [6] However, no matter which option PG&E decides to take, it will need to properly balance the local community's demand and the economic costs.

© Qinyi Geng. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] P. Mayeda and K. Riener, "Economic Benefits of Diablo Canyon Power Plant," California Energy Commission, June 2013.

[2] A. Brown, "Diablo Canyon Power Plant," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2015.

[3] D. Orozco, "The Future of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[4] G. R. Thompson, "Declaration by Dr. Gordon R. Thompson Regarding the NRC Staff's August 2007 Supplement to The Environmental Assessment and Final Finds of No Significant Impact Related to the Construction and Operation of The Diablo Canyon Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation,", U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 11 Oct 07.

[5] "2016-2017 Information Digest," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NUREG-1350, Vol 28, September 2016.

[6] R. Nikolewski, "PG&E Files Plan to Shut Down Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant," Los Angeles Times, 11 Aug 16.

[7] "Report to the Secretary of Energy," Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, Janurary 2012.